- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

JERUSALEM Hundreds of young Muslim men kneeled in a street for Friday prayers yesterday after Israeli police refused to let them enter Al Aqsa mosque the site where the Palestinian uprising began 18 months ago.
"Why are we praying in the street when we have a beautiful house right inside there?" asked one young man, gesturing to the domed mosque.
"Tomorrow, the Jews will tell the Christians their religion belongs in the street," said the visibly agitated man who declined to be named.
As fighting raged throughout the West Bank on perhaps the bloodiest day yet in Israel's week-old incursion into Palestinian cities, an uneasy calm gripped Jerusalem's Old City and its sites, which are sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Muslim clerics here urged the faithful to bide their time as Israeli police and soldiers blanketed the area.
Israeli police refused to let men younger than 40 into the historic mosque, a precaution they have sporadically imposed.
Al Aqsa, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is built on the site of Jewish temples that date back to the days of Jesus.
It is near the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest sites, adjacent to the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus is said to have carried the cross, and on a hill above the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.
The mosque became a potent rallying point and symbol of resistance to Israel in September 2000 when Ariel Sharon then the front-runner in the prime ministerial race made a highly publicized visit to the site.
In response, a new militant group calling itself the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was born.
Affiliated with Fatah, the political organization of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, the Al Aqsa Brigade has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings.
Crowds outside the mosque shifted and heaved under the watchful eyes of civilian police and wary soldiers yesterday.
The atmosphere was so tense that even police horses wearing protective armor over their heads, hooves and eyes seemed skittish.
Scores of men were milling outside, some of whom appeared to be spoiling for a fight.
But an hour after the religious service began inside, one imam came out to the street to lead the young men in prayer.
Speaking and sometimes shouting hoarsely in Arabic, he recited from the Koran and related its themes of struggle and persistence to the gathering crowd.
Unlike in previous weeks, when religious leaders have whipped up resentment and anger among already seething listeners, this cleric, with a long silver beard and brown wooly cloak, told the open-air congregation that they must not fight the Israelis today.
"He told us to stay in our lands, to read the Koran and to persist in the struggle against Israel," said a plumber who was part of the crowd.
Ismail, an interpreter who comes here regularly and who furnished only his first name, said the remarks ranged from the religious to the political:
"He said that this situation is not just from [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon, but also from God, and God wants us to be patient, to return, and to be good Muslims.
"He said that God will help us, while only the United States will help Israel."

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